Beauty

by Tom Swift

My wife and I have been coming to this place, this island [in Maine], for about 25 years and we have been watching, for many years we watched this family of ospreys and we followed their life cycles and in April the parents would fly into the nest having been gone for the winter. They would, the mother osprey would lay eggs and at the beginning of June the eggs would hatch. The father would feed the fledgling family over the summer as the baby ospreys got bigger and bigger and then around the middle of August the babies would be big enough, they would take their first flight and ospreys are big birds, very large birds. I think they’re the second largest bird after eagles, and they’re very powerful and my wife and I had been watching these ospreys for years and watching new families each year, presumably it was the same parents each year, but different babies each year, and we had sort of catalogued their behavior or taken pictures, written down some of their behaviors and we thought we understood them somewhat, and then one summer about 10 years ago I had been looking at the nest all summer long as the babies were getting bigger and bigger and bigger, and I was looking at them from a circular deck in this house, and I was about eye level with the nest and so the baby ospreys had been looking at me every day as I’d been looking at them and I’m sure to them it looked like I was in a nest also because also on a circular deck and we’d been looking at each other all summer long, as they’d been getting bigger and bigger and finally they were big enough to take their first flight, their maiden voyage to leave the nest for the first time flying and they were pretty big at this time. I mean and even though adolescent, they were powerful with very strong claws, and there were two of them and I was standing on the deck and they flew away from the nest and did a huge circle of the island so they were out of sight for a little while because the island is about half a mile long, and then they flew back and they flew right at me, and they got closer and closer and after a few seconds I could tell that they were flying right at me intentionally and I got very scared because I knew they could rip my face apart easily and I was thinking about running back into the house but I decided, something made me stay where I was and when they got within about 20 feet from me, which is very, very close, and they were flying at extremely high speed — when they got within 20 or 30 feet of me, very, very close, they would’ve been on me in a fraction of a second. They suddenly did this sudden acceleration, vertical acceleration and went up and over the roof of the house and for that last split second, it might’ve been like a quarter of a second, a fraction of a second, they looked me right in the eye. It was a very deep eye contact and I had no doubt they were looking at me right in the eye before they accelerated upward and in that brief quarter of a second there was so much that was communicated between us. I felt like they were telling me that we were brothers, that we shared this piece of land together, that we were part of nature together and that there was some kind of mutual respect and after they had gone and were over the house I found that I was in tears and I was shaking and I’d never had an experience like that before with any animal, even dogs and cats, and never had it since. It was just a profound communication with a wild animal, but a mutual understanding. And it was something that I really can’t describe. I mean I’ve attempted to describe it right now, but I can’t really describe that sensation and I think that that … I mean I interpret that as a connection to the spiritual world. You know if we think of the spiritual world as a larger world that we’re all a part of— when I say “all of us” I mean human beings, ospreys, other animals, trees, ocean — there was that kind of immediate connection, something that is totally unanalyzable by science. I mean you could hook up a CAT scanner to my brain and you could monitor the electrical activity in my brain and you wouldn’t come close to understanding what happened in that quarter of a second.

-Alan Lightman, physicist and writer, “Ingenious: Alan Lightman,” interview with Michael Segal, Nautilus (Iss. 016), Aug. 28, 2014